Whereas the court considers itself a lofty body above politics, it's often perceived in Africa as deeply political, called in by some leaders to sideline enemies in conflicts, according to analysts.

"There's a sense from many local groups that the court is very inconsistent in terms of the suspects it pursues. We have seen the court cozy up to political leaders in cases like Uganda and [Democratic Republic of] Congo. The complaint we hear is that the court has been manipulated," said analyst Phil Clark, an expert on international justice at the University of London.

He said the court's investigations of highly complex situations in Africa had often been weak because of poor resources and lack of local expertise. Its protection of witnesses also was inadequate.

"I think the court's had a problem with legitimacy right from the start of its work in Africa," Clark said. "The ICC tends to overstate its importance in Africa and often overstates the impact it can have on conflicts in Africa."

But Evenson said that although African leaders don't like the court, "we see very strong support for the ICC, particularly from African civil society."

The criticism comes as the court grapples with its most difficult case to date, the Kenyan trials, with many key prosecution witnesses withdrawing amid intense pressure from their communities and family members, who fear repercussions.

Frank Mwangi, a Kenyan lawyer for one witness who recently withdrew from the case, told Kenya's Nation newspaper that his client had lost everything she had in the 2007 and 2008 violence, but that she withdrew because she couldn't testify without knowing how she and her family would be protected.

"I feel my security and that of my family will be in jeopardy since no efforts have been made to provide them with adequate security. What assures me I will be protected after I have testified?" she said in an affidavit to the ICC, according to the report.

Witnesses' fear was heightened after a newspaper, bloggers and others in Kenya published a photograph of a woman who they claimed was the first trial witness against Ruto, identified in court only as Witness 536. The court had tried to guarantee her anonymity.

On Wednesday, the court unsealed a warrant for the arrest of a Kenyan journalist accused of trying to bribe witnesses in the cases against Ruto and Kenyatta.

Political analyst Ngunjiri Wambugu contends that the Westgate attack offers Kenyatta a "silver lining," a chance to recast his presidency and perhaps avoid the ICC trial.

Writing in the Star newspaper Sunday, Wambugu argued that the cases against Kenyatta and Ruto should be reconsidered, and said of the president, "He now has an opportunity to remind Kenyans and the world that our country is at war, and point to Westgate as to why we cannot afford to have a president with divided attention."

Although critical of the court's focus on Africa, some analysts say the claims of bias don't hold. Five of the 21 judges and its chief prosecutor are Africans, and most of the cases were referred to the court by African governments. Others were referred by the United Nations Security Council. Few were initiated by the court.

Despite the difficulties in the current trials, Clark, the University of London analyst, said the court has too much international support to be abandoned, even if the Kenya cases collapse, and even if it continues to blunder. Still, he was hardly blithe about its future.

"I think the likely scenario is it's going to continue to limp along," he said. "There seems to be a prosecutorial strategy of lurching from one country to another, making the same mistakes, using investigators who don't understand the African continent."

robyn.dixon@latimes.com